Extended Interview: Susan Orlean, author of "The Library Book"
● By Alesha Damerville
By Jennie Lay
Long dark nights and frigid air send you diving for the blankets. It’s prime time for snuggling in with a good read. This extended interview is part of a series of conversations with four authors of brand-new – but wildly different – books. Indulge in their stories, then bundle up and venture out to hear their backstories during live talks in Steamboat Springs throughout the winter.
An Ode to the Stacks: “The Library Book” by Susan Orlean
Susan Orlean says she leaned on many memorable librarians while writing “The Library Book,” her latest feat of reportage. She delves into the catastrophic 1986 fire in the Los Angeles Public Library that consumed and damaged more than a million books. As a staff writer at The New Yorker, Orlean is no stranger to deep research. This time, she weaves an irresistible tale of unsolved mystery with a passionate personal love letter to libraries as our belovedpublic institutions that draw eclectic audiences from all walks of life as they educate and illuminate.
Steamboat Magazine:You have reported on such a wide range of intriguing people and topics over the years. What turned your attention to libraries?
Susan Orlean:Taking my young son to the library reminded me of how much I love libraries and how important they had been to me, especially when I was young. That made me begin thinking that it would be fascinating to write about these institutions that have so much meaning for so many of us. When I heard about the fire, I knew I simply had to write this book.
SM:Curiously, the media has declared both the death of libraries and a resurgence of libraries in recent years. In your observations, what have they gotten wrong, and what have they gotten right?
SO:There are certainly challenges that have arisen in the last decade or so that have forced libraries to reexamine what they are and what they do – the availability of information on the Internet, the ease of ordering books online, and the fact that so many libraries have become de facto homeless centers. But what the media hasn't gotten right is that libraries have responded creatively and assertively to these challenges, and most of them are seeing increases in use and a new vitality in the programming they do outside of just lending books. I don't think we'll see the end of libraries any time soon.
SM:What have libraries meant to you personally, and has that changed over the course of your life?
SO:Libraries were magical places to me when I was young: I felt complete freedom in them, and had every curiosity satisfied, and sensed that I could have anything I wanted from them. As I grew up, and especially when I was in college, I started losing my affection for them and began buying books – in fact, I was determined to build an enormous collection of my own. But being reintroduced to libraries in the last few years, particularly because I began taking my son to them, reminded me of how much I love them and how special they are – so I've become a library enthusiast once again.
SM:What are you reading?
SO:I'm currently reading “An American Marriage”by Tayari Jones, and I definitely recommend it.
SM:You are known for your deep dive into research. What was the most surprising thing you learned about libraries?
SO:I loved learning that there are more libraries than McDonald's in the United States.
SM:What is at the core of this story that you hope people will take away from reading your book? And did you set out with that mission, or did it evolve over time?
SO:At the heart of this book is an appreciation for storytelling – a realization that stories are essential to our very existence, and that libraries are important to us because they preserve the stories we tell. This book is many different stories threaded together, but they all move toward the same point: That we are defined by our stories individually, and our culture is defined by our stories collectively.
SM:If you could be a character from any book ever written, who would you want to be?
SO:Winnie the Pooh. I love honey.
Meet the author: Susan Orlean speaks about “The Library Book” at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 17 at the Bud Werner Memorial Library